By: Najah Zaaeed
We live in a world in which people are increasingly facing various challenges, many of which affect their well-being and lifestyles. Unfortunately, Muslims with disabilities are sometimes faced with barriers within their own Muslim communities. Recently, the Muslim Social Research Network launched a global study to understand the needs of Muslims with disabilities in the U.S., UK and Canada. The findings will be used to educate Muslim organizations about the challenges their community members with disabilities endure and provide recommendations on how to improve services, communication, and inclusion.
Imagine being limited to going outdoors or interacting with others because you have a disability or impairment. Imagine being unable to obtain general education because the school or organization does not have the resources or staff needed to teach individuals with disabilities and impairments. Imagine wanting to learn about your faith, including how to pray and how to recite words from the verses of the Qurʾān Al Kareem, yet there is no one to teach you because there is a lack of people willing to educate Muslims with disabilities and impairments. Imagine going to the masjid, only to be directed to pray in an isolated area or shoe room, not in congregation, because the facility does not provide ease of accessibility for individuals with disabilities who have medical equipment or pets to aid them. Sometimes the challenges for Muslims with disabilities and impairments are not due to structure, but due to a simple lack of awareness from other patrons and board members. We live in a world that is filled with imagination, but we don’t realize some of those thoughts may actually take place in our own communities.
A place of worship is generally thought of as being a safe, kind, and like welcome-home to anyone, including individuals with disabilities or impairments. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. In fact, Muslims with disabilities and impairments, as well as their caregivers, tend to face challenges when attempting to participate in regular congregational prayers, Islamic educational programs, holiday/ special events, or general visitations to the masjid. Their struggles also extend to gaining access, participating with or obtaining resources from other Islamic organizations and centers. Granted, the world is not perfect, and individuals with disabilities or impairments may face barriers at even non-religious facilities; as faith-based organizations missions, however, typically connect religion with improvement of society, it has become ever more important to understand impaired or disabled Muslims’ concerns and challenges within Muslim organizations.
Like many Muslims, regardless of disability, Heather Albright would visit the masjid with the hope of learning about Islam, engaging with others, and performing her obligatory prayers in congregation. Instead, she oft times found her experience to be stressful, as she was bombarded with “off the wall” questions about her blindness and her ability to learn and be independent. Similarly, Misty Bradly, a single mother who is also blind, found that many underestimated her abilities because of her inability to see.
“People didn’t realize that blind people were capable of doing things on their own,” Misty explains. Although masjid patrons are friendly, they often make Muslims with disabilities and their caregivers feel ignored, as though they don’t belong, or as though they cannot move without assistance. It is important to note that this is not the case in all masjids, as some actually promote inclusion and expect engagement of Muslims with disabilities in activities. Nonetheless, these experiences combined with the lack of resources to create, support, and sustain the inclusion of Muslims with disabilities are relevant and should be addressed.
According to Yusuf Abdul-Qadir, who cares for his aging mother losing her sight because of glaucoma, “going to pray at a masjid is hard particularly when they’re not user friendly. I don’t think we have the resources; not because they’re unavailable to us but because we don’t place enough value in it.”
Misty’s challenges associated with Islamic organizations and her disability affect how she is able to engage in her daughter’s education. Islamic school teachers failed to adhere to her request of alternative communication methods; her request to communicate and keep her informed through e-mail, so that she could use her JAWS for windows software which enables screen reading the information to her, was ignored. This was troublesome as Misty was invested in her daughter’s education, but found herself missing special events due to a lack of communication.
Muslims with disabilities are not the only one to bear the stress of the barriers they endure in their Muslim communities. Caregivers of Muslims with disabilities have witnessed similar obstacles. Nicole Epps has realized her Muslims community lacks the resources needed to provide her five year old daughter Sarah, who has spastic cerebral palsy, an Islamic education. Sarah does not attend any type of Islamic school; this is not by choice, but rather because many Islamic schools, including weekend programs in North Carolina, do not accommodate students with disabilities or special needs. Nicole is not alone; Chess Conners has four children with some type of disability. Her oldest has autism while another has a physical disability affecting her legs. Like Nicole, Chess found that the Islamic schools are not equipped to educate children with special needs.
While a lack of special education teachers prevent Muslims with disabilities from learning about Islam in traditional settings, it is still possible for many to participate in activities and engage in programs offered to everyone at the masjid. Unfortunately, many Islamic centers are not disability friendly due to infrastructure, a lack of resources, such as visuals for individuals that may be hard of hearing or visually impaired, or the simple lack of awareness on how to treat and accommodate people with disabilities from an Islamic perspective. Addressing this last concern would prevent misunderstandings regarding the permissibility of someone with special medical shoes, equipment, or pets entering the masjid.
Mohammad Yousef is very familiar with the treatment of Muslims with disabilities by fellow Muslims and with accessibility barriers in Islamic centers and masjids. Although Mohammad is a well-educated engineer and founder of the organization, EquallyAble, he still finds himself having to defend the use of his medical shoes and leg brace in the prayer area. Mohammed’s organization aims to create awareness and advocate on behalf of Muslims with disabilities. Similarly, Chess feels accessibility, especially in Islamic centers or masjids that have multiple levels, can create barriers for people wishing to attend yet can’t due to a physical disability.
I “never really felt accepted in the community, because of how my children are,” explains Chess, who has felt a difference in the treatment of her and her children by others in her Muslim community. Chess feels that community members can sometimes make parents feel as though their child has a disease, rather than a disability. She remembers how someone found out about her second child’s incident and quickly informed others at the masjid. Chess believes education about disability is key, because people don’t realize the emotions individuals with disabilities may experience, especially if they have negative interactions with others. Chess wants parents to understand that “your child isn’t going to catch autism by being around my daughter.” Chess is not alone; Nicole shares, “kids don’t understand,” and parents do not help their children comprehend that people with disabilities may not be that different and may want to play and participate in activities just like any other child. Children with disabilities should “feel included, that it’s a disability but not a handicap.” Other children, such as Misty’s, are taunted by their fellow peers because of the parent’s disability. Sometimes Misty’s daughter is told “your mom can’t do that,” leaving her own child to wonder what her mother is capable of doing on her own. Misty now finds herself reminding her daughter that she is independent and able to care for herself.
All individuals interviewed stressed the importance of breaking down the stereotypes surrounding disabilities, specifically Muslims with disabilities. In addition to ease of access, many wish for improved Islamic education and resources for individuals with disabilities.
Learning about Islam
While some caregivers, such as Nicole and Chess, opted to teach their children about Islam at home, others continue to visit the masjid because they still want to feel as though they are a part of the community and learn something about Islam. Heather wanted to learn versus of the Qurʾān, yet cannot read it; instead of doing nothing, she decided to search for the Qurʾān in braille and was eventually able to get a copy.
Learning how to read the Qurʾān in braille presents its own challenges. Although a Qurʾān in braille is available, it is important to understand that even Islamic texts in braille require one to be educated on how to read it, explains Norma Hashim of the International Union of Braille Quran Services. The IBQS is comprised of 13 organizations in thirteen countries with hopes to grow. Braille phonetic is based on sounds and most braille Qurʾāns found in places such as Saudi Arabia have words that are shortened, which non-Arab speakers would most likely not understand or even pronounce correctly. The braille Qurʾān offered by the Malaysian Braille Association, whom Norma is also associated with, offers the longer braille version of the Qurʾān, which can be understood.
As technology and research advance, the opportunity for Muslims with disabilities to address their needs increases. Many Muslims with disabilities have used their impairment as a resiliency, developing organizations to create awareness and solutions. Although some may look for organizations to advocate on their behalf, “in general you need to be your own advocate and talk to the Imams and people and explain to them why this is different,” says Mohammad Yousef, of EquallyAble. Rabia Khedr, executive director of CAM-D (Canadian Association of Muslims with Disabilities), is blind and knows all too well the stigmatism that is associated with impairments. Amazingly, Rabia and her fellow peers at CAM-D have come a long way to establish their organization, which started off as a resource and advocacy center. They will soon be launching a project called Deen. Interestingly, CAM-D faced many challenges from Islamic organizations during their initial years of establishment. According to Yusuf Abdul-Qadir, who is also a board member of a masjid in central New York, “I find the challenge is getting Muslims to be sympathetic!” The internal struggles and recognition and leadership within Islamic organizations hinder their ability to address their Muslim community’s needs. This is one of the reasons CAM-D board members decided to be a stand-alone organization. In part, doing so allowed them to serve a greater community, advocate on behalf of individuals with disabilities, and make recommendations that are built on the needs of Muslims with disabilities, regardless of an Islamic organization’s affiliation.
While many of the parents interviewed for this article stated they would like to see disability awareness programs conducted by Islamic organizations for their community members, individuals such as Misty also express the concern of basic accessibility challenges at masjids and Islamic events. Misty shares, “a lot is culture, while we have to respect, and they need to learn more about disability and capabilities of disabled.” While Yusuf Abdul-Qadar shares similar agreement he reiterates, “the Muslim community isn’t competent enough to care about these issues, unfortunately. This is from a board member!”
Refreshingly, people like Mohammad, Rabia, and Heather are contributing to the slow, but effective changes ensuring their concerns, as well as the concerns of other Muslims with disabilities are heard and their needs are being met. Rabia says the need for awareness and advocacy is “huge and the resources are small.” Rabia and Mohammad both mention the importance of pro-activeness from Muslims with disabilities, in their communities. Mohammad goes further to mention the importance for Imams and Muslims organization board and community members to take the time to “get to know someone with a disability and understand what happens in their life and with their family members.”
The current reality is that Islamic centers across the US, UK and Canada can easily become overwhelmed with a plethora of community concerns and sometimes need to rely on information and training from third party organizations or advocates on issues such as addressing the concerns of individuals with special needs. The recent study on Muslims with disabilities is not the first research to address the needs of Muslims with disabilities, and it may not be the last as social concerns and needs are steadily changing. However, findings of the study by MSRN will be greatly beneficial to Muslims with disabilities, their caregivers, and Muslim communities and organizations overall.
If you know someone who has a disability or is a caregiver of someone with a disability, please share the following link, http://www.smartsurvey.co.uk/s/disability, and ask them to take a few moments to complete the survey anonymously. Voicing their concerns can only improve conditions for themselves, those they care about, and those that come after them.